Q&A with memoirist Liz Stephens

The Days are Gods author on braids, voice & earning your story.

Liz Stephens: “Voice is the through-line.”

Stephens: “Voice is the through-line.”

After reviewing The Days are Gods, I asked its author, Liz Stephens, for an interview, and she has kindly obliged. Stephens, Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Glendale College, California, earned a PhD in creative nonfiction at Ohio University, where she served as managing editor of Brevity.

You’re very reflective about your ongoing experience as the story moves forward—and it does move forward, The Days are Gods combining the strengths of sharing someone’s subjective, highly reflective point of view with that of scenic narrative, of experiencing her life events. What were your processes and models in working out this persona, voice, point of view, stance—however you think of it: and how do you?—which is distinctive and seems somewhat unusual to me in the way that it is combined so strongly with forward-moving events?

This was the most deliberate construction in the book: to gently balance the growth of becoming more internally knowledgeable about both a place and myself, and to use external events to do so. I essentially wrote the text and then dug my hands into it and picked up those three threads—knowledge of self, knowledge and lessons of place, external events—and started slowly braiding, backwards and forwards, over and over, until the plait worked out at the end. The sections had been much simpler to write individually and initially, but in the end I did have to order them, which was by and large how the final arc was made. Though I also did tweak some sentences very lightly to emphasize momentum through time or self-knowledge—literally highlighting season, or taking out a small reference in the past tense. I also had to find and then use deliberately any personal blind-spots I’d had, which sometimes I needed to write back in, of course.

The arc retains some lightness due to the nature of actually living the process as I wrote; I think in this case, taking a long time to write the book worked heavily to its advantage. I was more aware of myself, and more in tune with my surroundings, by the end of the writing process, so I resisted changing earlier bits to make myself look smarter. I just left in my initial excitements and lack of knowledge. But, yes, choices like deeper internal musings, more High West lingo, and less glibness in my conclusions by the middle to end were very deliberate.

Furthermore, I had tools by the end of the writing I hadn’t had access to at the beginning. When I began this book, I was an early nonfiction writer and high on discovery. By the end, I was finishing years of study of nonfiction form, hours of writing workshops with invested peers and mentors in the same field. So when my point of view as the narrator changes, it is through an integral change of the persona itself. Voice is the through-line that doesn’t change. “She’s” still there, talking to you, amazed.

Models? Uh, now that I think about it, no. I don’t think I’m alone in achieving this, but I didn’t model this after a particular successful narrative in my reading list. I just knew I needed momentum for the book to be one that a broader audience than essay-lovers would like, but knew I did not at all want to give up my musing, because that would have turned the text into a field trip through the West. I did have one very established awarded writer (not anyone affiliated with my program, but a very fine writer in their own right) tell me to stop taking about my feelings so much, but that seemed more like that person and less like me. I do know this will be the model of the balance of my next book. It’s most like me.

You carefully worked a thread through the book about an older local couple you admire and how they accept and befriend you. When you and your husband make a decision, late in the book, that disqualifies you as locals, they take back a horse they’ve given you—essentially they steal it—and the reader, at least this one, feels upset and angry. I experienced this as the book’s climax. Then, a little later, you return to their act and reflect on it from their perspective, moving the reader toward understanding and empathy for them. It’s remarkable, and I wonder how you envisioned this culminating event, as the way I experienced it or in some other way?

I in no way envisioned them as offering closure, advancement, or analogy to the book. Funny, isn’t it? A lot of the threads in the book now look that way in retrospect, I think because I was writing (the first time through! This should be emphasized, for my students!) so purely from my deep place of processing the experience, but in this parallel immersion of new (to me) discovery in craft; I literally could not see it coming. I wrote not knowing the end any more than you did. I can only hope for that state of grace to light on me again, where all of the serendipitous moments happen again and you look back after the writing and it’s like looking through a really obvious tunnel or down a cattle path in the weeds. It’s like speaking in tongues. Just prepare yourself, sit on your butt to be available, and then get out of your own way—sometimes, in case you want to repeat yourself. My mother-in-law sees sweet Yellow the cat as a metaphor for my very soul in the West; and you know what? She’s right too. You all are.

So in the end, I do see that couple as a literary barometer for our family’s position in the community. They were the benchmark for how we fit. Until it slowly dawned on us we may have been looking at the wrong standard-bearer. . . in the end it was clear that they themselves were not as seamlessly and holistically embedded in their own community anymore, and that was a very moving mark of the changing of the very nature of the West. People who lived not more than one house from him could say with a straight face, “Now he’s country,” and you know, they didn’t always mean it as a compliment. So when we lost their faith, we still came out smelling like roses to the town, flashy and exotic, moving at will . . . but to everyone’s detriment, I think. What he’s got, I think we should want, if we don’t.

Also, I wrote the end of the book fresh. I’d barely had time to process my loss myself. There’s a whole saga about selling our sweet home that was so raw I couldn’t even include it. Even though it was the dead-nuts perfect metaphor for our experience there. Ugh. Would not compute.

Stephens-Days are Gods

Braids: “knowledge of self, lessons of place, external events”

Annie Dillard once said that every book has its own impossibility that the writer soon experiences, realizing her task isn’t as simple as she’d pictured. That, in fact, the book may be impossible. What was the impossible problem you faced in writing The Days are Gods?

 Annie is always right. When in doubt . . . anyway, I moved before the book was done. I feared I was screwed, book-wise. But I longed for it. I sat staring out at my new back field full of frogs and poison ivy and trees so unlike my last view, and just pined. My mother looked out the front window of my Ohio house at the forest and, sure enough, said, “What a view,” and I burst out crying.

And then I called it back, the feeling of all of every bit of it. I wrote as a testament to that loss and those lessons. So every bit of what I learned in my PhD program got cycled through that particular wringer. I really believe in telling a fairly literal truth in nonfiction, so I wasn’t interested in dreaming up the rest whole-cloth for a better story. I had to be very conscious and deliberate about what I had learned and when. I doled out my experiences there very deliberately jewel-like into their settings. That created more than anything perhaps the story drive you were talking about. If your response is any indication, that became a central feature to the book, but it seemed while I did it to be not possible. But I was afforded the opportunity to not hurry the processing of an experience, to think deeply and well about a particular finite set of events, and love on them at length.

Additionally, the fact that I’d moved seemed to be a dead give-away that I hadn’t stayed. So did that invalidate my search there? That became a central issue. And I knew, just examining my own—well, grief wasn’t too strong a word then—it was so patently manifest and undeniable I got mad and thought, hell with it. If readers don’t think I deserve to feel this, they can lump it and just feel gyped at the end. But I’m going to be dead honest all the way through, and earn it, and explain it, and we’ll see how they feel about me then. I’m still finding out.

Liz Stephens’s The Days are Gods website is worth visiting, especially for its resources page, with ideas, links, and recommended books. And Joe Bonomo hosts Liz’s self-interview at his blog No Such Thing as Was.

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6 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, braids, threads, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV

6 responses to “Q&A with memoirist Liz Stephens

  1. Congratulations, Liz! And another insightful interview, Richard. I like what Liz says about getting out of the way. What can seem as deliberate intent to the reader may have been pure happenstance on the writer’s part.

  2. Thanks for the interview, Richard. I really liked most of all Liz Stephens’s commitment to honesty. I think that even in “this day and age” of postmodernist memoir, when one might expect to find both fact and some form of altered fact (not to outright call it fiction) in a memoir, the commitment to honesty keeps people coming back for the basic experience and encounter with an individual mind that memoir is about to lots of people.

  3. morgansc

    I finished reading The Days Are Gods last night. Wonderful, wonderful book. I was so struck by the (almost exclusive) use of present tense, how it made me feel as if I were inside Stephens’ head, or experiencing the events and her feelings as would a good friend. all the hallmarks of good personal essay. It also seemed to me the whole book was a study/discussion about–and I love this word to death– sehnsucht, the German word for a longing or yearning for what we do not know. Thank you, Richard, for the interview, and thank you, Liz, for a wonderful book.

    • Thanks so much, Morgan. Glad I steered you to a book you like. Love “sehnsucht.” English is great but that’s a word that we seem to be missing. Your point about present tense is well taken—probably should’ve mentioned that in my review.

    • morgansc, thank you for your note! You’ve noticed the present tense! Oh how I worked for that! Richard asked me a question in his interview about what seemed as I wrote this to be the “impossible thing,” the aspect which made the book for a time seem undo-able (always a sign that the writer should turn and face the issue head-on, of course) and somewhere in this subject of tense is the answer.

      I finished the book when I was gone. All books are written after the author has experienced the events, but this time had well and truly passed, not by years but by geographic change. It was wrenchingly fast. So the emotions, not to mention the lessons and the changes those wrought in me, were absolutely of the present. I had to tamp down the elegiac tone constantly as I wrote this, essentially, valentine, to the place and time I loved so much. It would have been far too treacly, unapproachable. But in the extremely willful Zen experience of loving hard but staying balanced I found the full circle of the lessons I’d taken in: love is kind of always present tense. So are our most important “knowledges,” of ourselves and the world. Important feelings – like grief, in fact, in balance with the buoyant lightness of curiosity – are carried in a present tense way within ourselves.

      And just to wrap up…well, I loved this voice. I loved talking in it, and being with readers through it. Even as I wrote alone I felt communication, and relief, in getting this stuff down. I think the present tense helped convey that. I didn’t learn and become an expert who can now pass on wisdom in the implicit received-knowledge kind of tone past tense tends to convey. I just lived it. I wanted readers to feel that.

      Editors later, incidentally, tried to change the tense. I knew that would be wrong. You response to its effect, as well as Richard’s to the narrative momentum, are doubly interesting to me as they confirm my choices, and are nods to an essayistic tradition I’m steeped in. I’m very excited about that. My future work won’t be about this experience, obviously, but will be essaying around ideas I’m immersed in now, and so I am reassured to be stepping boldly in that direction.

      Also: I think my headstone will say,”living sehnsucht.” Thank you for deepening my day by giving me that wonderful word to mull with.